The mobile Web is a hot area again. The iPhone has sparked much of the interest by giving consumers an easier mobile Web-browsing experience. Brands are establishing mobile marketing strategies and operators are starting to offer pricing plans for data that are understandable and affordable. You’d think a bright future for the mobile Web is predictable. Think again. There are bumps in the road ahead that must be avoided in order for the mobile Web to succeed.
I come from the IT and Internet industry where problems are openly aired and discussed. But in the mobile world, there seems to be a “mum's the word” covenant that poses a danger when troubling issues are swept under the carpet. I believe this is because those who understand these issues don't want to see changes, and are not accountable to the marketplace.
When we look at the potential of the mobile Web, however, it becomes clear that we must address these challenges if we’re going to be successful. We need to be aware of the risks as we navigate around those bumps in the mobile Internet road.
Greed bump: First of all, while many operators are making good money from off-deck billing services -- such as the U.K.'s Payforit initiative -- they smell the opportunity to make even more money in mobile advertising and search. However, their concern is that as soon as users learn they can change the home page in their mobile phone to whatever they want, the operators’ involvement with the user disappears and they have no place to sell advertising. We must convince operators that the mobile Web will increase traffic and in the end is better for everyone.
User experience bump: In Europe, several mobile operators have started to place “transcoders” or “filters” that intercept and replace Web (HTTP) traffic going to their customers’ phones. For instance, Vodafone uses a mobile optimizing technology that reformats Web pages downloaded to their servers to fit onto a mobile phone screen. The effects are sometimes relatively benign -- for example, reducing the sizes of images for faster download. In other cases, it is more damaging -- when operators mask the handset type from mobile Websites, preventing Website owners from providing a good experience to users.
Imagine the uproar if Verizon started filtering ads on their fixed broadband network and adding banner ads to Web pages. In the mobile world, where mobile operators can generally operate under the radar, this filtering practice may continue. However, I suspect that there is enough resistance to this idea, and sufficient competitive pressure between operators to stifle these misguided initiatives.
Targeting bump: I see a problem brewing with mobile advertising. In the early days of desktop Web surfing, advertisers could be relatively sure that PC users were affluent since they obviously bought a PC, paid for a modem and an ISP, and had installed a TCP/IP stack and browser. Most likely, these users lived in North America, Europe, or Japan. And if you advertised on English sites, they were probably in the U.K. or U.S.
In the mobile Internet universe, this scenario is almost the reverse. A user spending a lot of time browsing on their mobile device may not have a PC or a broadband line -- possibly because they can't afford it. Evidence points to the typical mobile Web user in the U.S. and U.K. being demographically flat rather than skewed to high income. Moreover, the most active mobile Web users are found in countries like South Africa, India, and Indonesia, where English is largely spoken, but the opportunity for advertising is very different from the U.K. or U.S.
When you combine this fact with the inability of traditional "PC browser" analytics to track or measure users coming from mobile devices through operator gateways, there is a risk that advertisers could be squandering their marketing investment. They may be setting themselves up for disappointment when they start to measure advertising effectiveness by more than page views. I know of more than one chat network supported by advertisers that don't realize that 90 percent of their page views and page hits are coming from Africa, India, and Indonesia.
As the mobile and Internet worlds continue to collide, I suspect some interesting fireworks will happen. I’d like to suggest we view these sparks as a great "opening ceremony" for the mobile Web. If I’m wrong, and we can’t get through these bumps in the road, then the outcome will be that the sparks light the funeral pyre of the mobile Web.
— Ray Anderson, CEO of Bango